Because she didn’t want us to grow up to be uncouth yokels like our father, the old lady started reading to us boys pretty early. She’d start off with the Child’s Garden of Verses which she acted like was real special since Robert Stevenson had something to do with it. This I didn’t like as much as Mother Goose featuring Humpty Dumpy and that woman who lived in a shoe. And some of the Grimm stuff too. But the stories that tended to stick in my mind were by Uncle Remus and involved Brer Rabbit.
I don’t know if people read Uncle Remus anymore. People might think it is racist. But I am not sure what reason for that there might be. Maybe the Tar Baby? But as I understand it these were African Oral Tales that a white man named Chandler Harris compiled and put out under the nom de plume of Uncle Remus. Once at some function I sat next to a young black lady in anthropology I think, and I asked her about Uncle Remus and she said there was nothing racist in it, and we had sort of a debate about what Brer Rabbit represented She said he was a common figure in African tales; he represented the trickster.
I said, true, he did trick Brer Fox on a number of occasions, but on one occasion at least he tricked himself and that was one of my favorites, the tale of the tar baby. Seems Brer rabbit was out walking one day—well, you know the story. And he came upon the Tar Baby who refused to returned Brer Rabbit’s salutation and that pissed off Brer Rabbit and receiving no apology for the insult, he attacked the Tar Baby and the more he fought the more he got tangled up in the Tar Baby.
So I said, Brer Rabbit didn’t seem to represent a trickster in this story; instead, I proposed, he had received his comeuppance for being the egotist that he was and getting so easily insulted. The black student allowed that in this particular tale, true, Brer Rabbit had been chastened, but as a trickster he was also understood to be an egoist. I allowed as how she probably was correct and obviously Brer Rabbit was a more highly complex character than I had supposed.
In one of the trickster tales, Brer Fox gets his hands on Brer Rabbit and is going to eat him. But Brer Rabbit starts saying stuff like before you eat me please don’t stick me with a knife because there’s nothing I hate more than being stuck with a knife. So Brer Fox would go to stick him with a knife and Brer Rabbit said something like oh don’t stick me with a knife before you eat me because even more than being stuck with a knife I hate being…and so on and so forth, till he said there was nothing he hated more than being thrown in the blackberry patch. Whereupon the Fox did that and Brer Rabbit just laughed because there was no way Brer Fox was going to get him in there.
I was particularly fond of this story because of its mention of the blackberry patch. There was one of those maybe fifty yards across down in the hollow beyond Grandma’s house. I loved those blackberries. They were free food. Sometimes towards the middle of the summer, I would crawl out under that big black berry patch getting stuck now and then, but out as far towards the middle as I could go and find a nice spot with a bunch of berries, and lie on my back with the sun filtering through the leaves and eat blackberries, at times each one being sweeter than the next. I guess I identified with Brer Rabbit because out in the middle of that black berry patch I felt off in my own place and safe from bigger people should they want to get at me.